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It’s the thought that counts

I was planning to leave this as a comment to Bret Treasure’s thoughtful analysis of the cubic zirconium conundrum, but as the reply grew longer it started taking on a life of its own. Stupid brain. The essence of the problem being that a jewelry business founded on creating “cheap imitations” will have a hard time selling itself to an image-conscious public.

A jewellery purchase is usually a symbol of love or commitment. These sorts of decisions are made in the limbic system of the brain. Rational decisions like saving money and notions of societal norms reside in the neocortex. For most people, a business proposition like the Secrets shhh one is going to cause cognitive dissonance. Equals purchase resistance.

Note that this isn’t the case with every purchase: Bali’s entire tourist trade is in selling designer knockoffs and pirate DVDs to vacationers, as is the case with most of South East Asia’s shopping hotspots. But when you’re buying there, even as gifts for others, both you and the gift recipient are aware of the diminished value of the item. This is normally corrected by buying your cousin Tammy eight faux-designer handbags instead of the one she really wanted from her local boutique, but everyone is still acutely aware of the exchange taking place. It’s a token gift; it doesn’t mean “I think you’re worth it”, it means “I was in Bali and this shit was forty cents a piece”.

It is immensely difficult to align the “mock jewelry” or indeed the “imitation anything” experience with what people already believe about luxury items. Luxury is almost entirely defined by cost, and in the case of jewelry the (monetary) sacrifice of the buyer is practically the whole point. But forget cubic zirconiums, what’s going to happen to the gemstone business when lab-grown diamonds cost a dollar and are bigger and clearer than anything you could ever dig out of the ground? Either the diamond cartels go crazy, demanding that all gems be certified by the Gemological Institute of America as “naturally derived” in a vain attempt to protect their dying business (sound familiar?), or the value of diamonds crashes and we all start preferring opals. Playing our prejudices against “the artificial” is working well for now, but give it time.

Where does that leave luxury? It means a realignment of mental models. It means a reassessment of value. As mentioned in the Wired article I link above, “if you go into a florist and buy a beautiful orchid, it’s not grown in some steamy hot jungle in Central America. It's grown in a hothouse somewhere in California. But that doesn't change the fact that it’s a beautiful orchid.”

In time jewelry buyers will have to choose between honest beauty and cachet. And then they’ll go make their sweetheart something with their own two hands and show her how much they really love her. Screw the cachet.